Why the Dark Ages weren’t so Dark: Revisiting Medieval Europe

Imagine yourself in 13th century Western Europe. You probably see yourself as a serf, tied to the land and suffering under the back-breaking labor that your oppressive feudal lords force you to do. Chances are that you’d also be starving and infected with plague because of the extremely unsanitary conditions of the time. If you’re a woman, say goodbye to all personal liberty. Most of your social interaction is done at church, where priests hold sermons in Latin that you don’t understand a word of because you never learned Latin. You never even learned to read, right?

Why do we oversimplify such a culturally rich epoch of European history? Though historians disagree on the exact start and end date of the Middle Ages, most place it somewhere between the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD and Columbus’ voyage to the Caribbean in 1492. This period is considered to be a time of isolation for Europe in which not much trade occurred, and progress in science and technology remained stagnant. Yet new research has shed light on the accomplishments of the time. For example, many centers of learning such as Oxford and the University of Paris were established. Though many resources were lost in the pursuit of alchemy, it helped people to discover many new elements that would later be added to the periodic table. As for the suppression of women’s rights, some inspiring female historical figures still managed to emerge such as Joan of Arc who lead the French army to victory, and the German nun Hildegard von Bingen who studied botany and medicine. Their names have echoed throughout time and still evoke our awe today.

I believe we shouldn’t underestimate the impact that the Middle Ages have had on Western thought, for some of the greatest works of literature emerged from this time. Our ideals of courtly love came from the great chivalric romances, such as Amadeus de Gaulle, in which a heroic brave knight saves a princess from a dragon. Some other epic works of literature like Dante’s Divine Comedy and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales were conceived in this time. The folk songs and fairy tales of today would be nothing without the Middle Ages, for perhaps no other time period in history has captured Western imagination as much. The Dark Ages may not have been the most scientifically advanced or morally enlightened, but they certainly weren’t a dark time for storytelling and singing epic ballads that still endure today.